MLB’s deals with Apple TV+ and potentially Peacock create new revenue streams but potential headaches for core fans
Simply trying to “put the game on” may have gotten a little more complicated. In addition to the deals Major League Baseball already has with your regional sports network, with ESPN, Fox, Facebook Live, YouTube, MLB Network and its streaming service MLB.TV, fans will soon be hunting for their favorite team on both Apple TV+ and Peacock.
MLB recently struck a deal with Apple TV+ to bring a package of primetime games to Friday night, and the Wall Street Journal reported that the organization is nearing a similar deal with Peacock for games in a new time slot on Sunday mornings. If you’re Apple or Peacock, it’s a way to compete with other deep-pocketed streamers investing in live sports content, attract new subscribers and limit churn among users who might be tempted to leave in between seasons of “Ted Lasso” (for instance).
For the league, the new streaming deals generate new revenue streams, attract more eyeballs and perhaps lure some younger fans to a sport that desperately needs them.
But as MLB tries to cover all its bases with so many partners to distribute games, will the broad, fragmented strategy work — or frustrate core fans who just want to watch all their team’s games all in one easy, predictable place?
“Think about the consumer experience of what that could be like, trying to find your team and your game,” Eric Sorenson, a senior contributing analyst with Parks Associates, told TheWrap. “It is very fragmented. And the question really is whether baseball fans are accustomed to it.”
Both on the field and off, MLB is in something of an existential crisis. Baseball’s average fan is 57 years old, based on a report from Sporting News that other analysts confirmed to TheWrap. The same analysts say the average MLB fan is 15 years older than the NBA’s (42), and seven years older than NFL fans (50). Baseball fans are also more likely to have pay-TV and access to the regional sports networks (RSNs) that still broadcast the bulk of MLB games. And since another report suggests just 7% of MLB’s audience is under 18, baseball desperately needs to reach younger people where they are — which is in streaming.
The three main reasons for MLB to make deals with Apple and Peacock are “revenue, revenue and revenue,” analyst Bruce Leichtmann of Leichtmann Research said. The incremental revenue from a yet unused pipeline is a no-brainer, he said, and it also opens up new negotiation opportunities for other rights deals and potentially raise their value over time..
MLB too has its own challenges, compared to the NFL and NBA as well. A 162-game season per team provides way more content than other sports, which Sorenson said requires the league to find more penetration and eyeballs across many platforms. The average fan is far less likely to watch a baseball game between two random teams than watch a random football game, which could limit the audience for whichever games do pop up on Apple TV+ or Peacock.
In addition, the league has struggled to make the game more appealing to younger viewers. Attempts to improve the pace of play have mostly failed, as the average game dragged to a record 3 hours, 10 minutes last season.
“The challenge is, and what they’re wrestling with in the game, is how do we reach this younger audience both in the length of our games but how do we physically reach this younger audience who is less likely to have a traditional service that provides all these games,” Leichtmann said. “Their challenge is making the game attractive and available. Streaming is not going to solve it, but it might open the door a crack, and more importantly, it provides incremental revenue that wasn’t there without the deals.”
And yet, MLB has actually been ahead of the curve in the streaming race compared to other major sports, offering all out-of-market games to fans through MLB.TV for years. And the league experimented with streaming on Facebook Live and YouTube TV. But the nature of those games’ exclusivity has already been the source of fan irritation. The YouTube games, though, have also offered fans ways to watch their own replay highlights or to have a live chat function alongside the broadcast, and those games have averaged 1.2 million viewers per game during primarily non-peak hours.
Streaming games may eventually create long-term fans who may one day turn into MLB.TV subscribers, Sorensen said, and the rights deals allow the league to grow its revenues without having to create much new content beyond the existing 162-game schedule.
“Even if they convert hypothetically zero of those fans, they’re still getting a new revenue stream that was not there before,” Parks Associates analyst and director of research Paul Erickson said. “There’s a finite limit to how many different deals they can cut for the same base of content before they start to chip into some of the highest value content of the nature of the portfolio that constitutes MLB.TV. … It’s a way to grow their revenues without having to create more content.”
Data from Parks Associates estimates that Apple TV+ has a far greater user base than MLB.TV — and it also skews male and averages 40 years old, which is exactly the demographic that MLB would like to target. Just 6% of U.S. broadband households subscribe to MLB.TV, Parks Associates reported, compared to 15% of those who use ESPN+.
The data also showed that just 28% of households access sports online. And unlike “Field of Dreams,” when it comes to streaming, just because you build it doesn’t mean that anyone will come.
“There’s not proof that younger fans will flock just because it’s on a platform they’re more likely to have access to it. What we have seen very definitely is that there is declining interest in sports among younger people, but it brings us to a chicken and egg question,” Ampere co-founder and analyst Guy Bisson said. “They have not generally had as much access to sports. So the question becomes, do they have lower interest because they haven’t had the access that the older generation has or is something else going on?”
It’s unclear whether or how games on Apple and Peacock might differentiate themselves from traditional broadcasts with on-air talent. Apple does plan to stream “MLB Big Inning,” a live look-in and highlights show that aims to be a baseball version of “NFL Red Zone” appealing to fantasy sports players looking for nonstop action.
Still, most analysts see MLB’s new streaming deals as a win-win for baseball and for the streamers. “The more that you can leverage these third parties that reach incredibly broad audiences, that’s the less you have to spend to actually do the same,” Erickson said. “It’s a wider audience, a younger audience, all these areas that they would otherwise have to do monumental efforts to reach themselves.”
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